REVIEW: Casino Jack [2010]

“Washington is just Hollywood with ugly faces”

Did you know Jack Abramoff works out everyday? Well, if director George Hickenlooper and writer Norman Snider’s Casino Jack is to be believed, everyone he dealt with knew. Here is a man (Kevin Spacey) who’s been in the lobbying game for so many years that his hot shot assistant, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), is even getting on in years, yet both call each other ‘bro’ affectionately and their clients ‘dude’. The media coined Abramoff a ‘Superlobbyist’ and he lived up to the reputation, shaking hands with House majority leader Tom DeLay, bragging about his integral part in shutting down John McCain in the Presidential primaries, and being invested in almost every Native American casino in the country. The film doesn’t pull its punches in as far as his nefarious dealings and the power players coming in and out of the quasi-legal backroom deals, but it also tries to paint the crook in a somewhat empathetic light. His dream was to open a private school for Jewish boys, he had charities, and education for Indians was a priority. However, how much of that was smoke and mirrors is up to you to decide.

You can’t deny his guilt in all matters from fraud, conspiracy, or even murder by association, but you also must shake your head at how many people got away scot-free. Men who controlled lawmaking in this country were for all intents and purposes accepting bribes for influence, putting their clout behind one Indian reservation while closing another down, or bringing their friend Jack money-making deals for him to find competent investors. At the beginning he did his job and made a pretty penny, but with a large house and five kids, keeping above water wasn’t a walk in the park. The greasing of palms simply meant getting his name out there, making powerful acquaintances and the use of their ‘brand’ to get work done. He was licensed on K Street and he was the envy of every other lobbyist in DC before the greed took over. While Abramoff had a cap on the amount of money he could charge clients—most of which went to politicians for favors when not his own pocket—Scanlon was merely a freelance employee without restrictions. If Mike could charge millions, splitting the take 50/50 under the table, why wouldn’t Jack waive his usual, “just keep it legal” mantra?

The whole story is quite comical when pulled together and shown onscreen. Even when Jack goes to jail, he keeps his calm demeanor as he asks whether the holding facility is kosher before explaining to two thugs in his cell, one named Snake, what lobbying entailed. How could you not want this guy in your corner? He was genial, had the perfect family, and got things done. There was nothing he couldn’t do; making the promises he gave for exorbitant amounts of cash believable. His lackeys were just as proficient in the con game as he and the reputation for getting C-SPAN coverage on issues his clients were a part of went far. If an old school Indian like Graham Greene’s Bernie Sprague saw through the charade to shoot down a thirty million dollar proposal to conquer competing casinos, Abramoff could influence elections, get him voted out, get his job cut, and place the younger, more material-minded chief, Eric Schweig’s Poncho, in control. Jack owned America, was on the cover of every national media publication, opened restaurants, invested in cruise casinos, and ultimately was brought down by his cheating partner’s fiancé. Aren’t they all?

Snider and Hickenlooper have brought together an eclectic cast of characters to fill out the absurd, almost too bizarre to be true, story. Pepper has always been built to fit the smarmy, money-grubbing yuppie and he does so again here as Scanlon. With a smile that could charm even the most cynical person, he bleeds sleaze while collecting influential people in all forums like baseball cards. Among those able to be played at will were DeLay and Congressman Bob Ney. Spencer Garrett’s portrayal of the former is great in his affable acquiescence with anything Abramoff asked as long as he had payoffs and golf trips in return and Jeff Pustil’s Ney is fantastically funny with a goofy voice and constant trip-ups on TV as he reads from Jack’s scripts. Jon Lovitz joins the game as Adam Kidan, a horrible excuse for a man with mob ties, drug habits, and bankruptcy to be the front for Abramoff’s money, eventually hiring the late Maury Chaykin, in one of his final roles, to do exactly what you’d think a guy named Big Tony would do. And Kelly Preston and Rachelle Lefevre join the fray too as Jack and Mike’s ladies—doing their duties by either standing with or ruining their men.

And then there’s Kevin Spacey in the role that’s being touted as his return to the big leagues. Recently languishing in supporting parts or tragically bad films, (or both), when not in London running the Old Vic, Casino Jack could be his ticket to A-list work once more. Already with a Golden Globe nod for the part, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the shortlist for Oscar glory too, although not having a chance at victory. It’s a strong performance that shows both the revulsion inherent in a man who plays with the lives of others without regard for their well-being and the humanity of a man who let greed take him too far. He could easily have ruined many Republicans, if not already outed during the course of the trial, but he held quiet, pleaded the Fifth, and now waits for freedom. Abramoff is the most evil kind of villain there is—he’s a man people love to hate and love even more to have by their side.

Whether the film is non-fictional in all aspects or not, I wouldn’t doubt his best journey towards revenge would be backing the Democrats, if they’ll take him. As long as he continues impersonating beloved cinematic characters in regular conversation, I’ll admit I’m kind of pulling for him. His success is kind of the American way after all.

Casino Jack 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
[1] Kevin Spacey in Casino Jack.
[2] Jon Lovitz and Barry Pepper in Casino Jack.
[3] Jon Lovitz stars as Adam Kidan in ATO Pictures’ Casino Jack (2010)

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